Actor John W. Lawson savors rare leading roles in "Daruma " and "Pet Sematary" prequel
CODA – an acronym for Children of Deaf Adults – also won Oscars for supporting actor (deaf actor Troy Kotsur) and adapted screenplay.
"It has certainly blazed a trail for my next film, Daruma, to follow next year," says Lawson, a former Fairfield resident who lost both hands from severe burns in 1987.
Lawson, who now lives in Los Angeles, says his role in Daruma is unlike any of the other 30-plus parts he's played in films or on TV. It's a lead role. He stars with Tobias Forrest, a quadriplegic who has appeared in How To Get Away With Murder, Special Unit and Wisdom of the Crowd.
"It is the first film in the history of filmmaking where both of the lead actors have been authentically cast with a disability, and the storyline has nothing to do with either of the character’s physical disabilities," Lawson says.
In the independent film, which has wrapped shooting, Lawson and Forrest are neighbors who take a cross-country road trip with Victoria Scott, the daughter of Forrest's character, to visit her grandparents. Barry Bostwick (Spin City, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Spy Hard, Law & Order: SVU, Cougar Town) plays the grandfather.
Daruma was Lawson's second lead role in six months. Last fall he played Stanny Bouchard in the "Untitled Pet Sematary prequel." Bouchard, originally written by Stephen King as an able-bodied character, was mentioned in the first two Pet Sematary films but never seen, he says.
"The script was rewritten for my character to be an amputee. I am excited for everyone to see this film with the unusual plot twist of my character,” Lawson says. He can't say more due to the nondisclosure agreement he signed with Paramount.
After completing Daruma, Lawson wrote on Facebook: "Over 40 years in the business, and suddenly I'm an 'overnight success.' I never thought that 35 years ago ... (when) I spent nearly six months of my life at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center ... that any successful life would be possible." He was severely burned while painting a water tank when electrical lines arced onto his paint roller's aluminum extension pole.
For most of his career, Lawson has played "the bad guy," as he puts it. The Internet Movie Database titles for his movie and TV characters say it all: "Handless" on American Horror Story (2014), "Amputee Veteran" on Shooter (2017), "Thug Missing Arms" in Rainn Wilson's Super (2010), "Navy Vet" on Law & Order (2009) and the "Fireworks Salesman" who had lost his arms from the pyrotechnics in Meet Monica Velour starring Kim Cattrall and Brian Dennehy (2010).
He hopes that CODA opens eyes in Hollywood to a talent pool often ignored.
"In the past 93 years of Oscar nominations, 61 were for actors portraying characters with disabilities. Almost half were Oscar winners, but only two of those were actual performers with disabilities. I understand that it’s called acting and an actor can 'act' disabled, but … we are denying the largest under-represented group, and in this case 25% of the population, the right to self representation," he says.
"CODA has raised awareness in the industry that disability is not a costume that one wears for a role, and that real life lived experiences with authentic casting of performers with disabilities makes stories that win awards and appeals to a broad and receptive audience," he says.
CODA, written and directed by Sian Heder, was based on the 2014 French film La Famille Bélier. The central character in the English-language remake is Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones), the only hearing member of a deaf family. CODA premiered in January 2021 at Sundance Film Festival, where Apple TV+ acquired its distribution rights.
Daruma producers want to have the film finished by August, in time for submission to Sundance.
"Hopefully, Daruma will follow the same path as CODA," Lawson says.